How Farming Makes You a Better Wholesaler

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Produce Business.

My name is Andreas Schindler and, together with my father and my brother, we are developing our family business with passion and excitement. Trying new things and seeing soon the result is very satisfying. Fresh fruits are demanding products with complex supply chains. We meet many interesting people around the globe.

The Pilz-Schindler Group was founded in 1952 in Hamburg, Germany, as wholesale produce supplier. The Hamburg terminal market has been the local home to our family-owned and operated business for three generations. Now internationally known under the brand name Don Limón, the company has expanded globally with offices in South Africa, India, Egypt and the United States. Our team of 50 employees is focused on delivering high-quality citrus, grapes and sweet potatoes through a seamless export, import, wholesale and repacking process.

In the spring of 1945, my grandfather and his family were forced to leave their home where three generations of Schindler’s had owned and worked the land as cabbage farmers. They fled to Hamburg in the north of Germany. This seaport city was then and continues to be a major center for global commerce. Moving to the big city meant leaving the farm behind and learning the business of trade. This transition proved to be incredibly difficult for him. It was my father, together with his brother, who became successful in the wholesale business because they focused on products from far away. It was difficult for the neighbors to copy.

Today, my brother and I have continued to build upon their success, further expanding our horizons by partnering with family businesses around the world to become a global actor in the market. Our vision is to truly manage all of our products from farm to shelf, ensuring each step of this process runs smoothly. We strive to be strong, capable and curious as we expand our cultural knowledge by connecting with people throughout the world to bring the best products to market.

My father emphasizes, “The core of our business is not trading fruits, but communicating with people who produce, sell, buy, transport, pack and trade produce. Produce business is people business.” Developing instincts to connect with individuals who will become our best collaborators and recognizing the complex personalities behind human connection at the heart of every great business transaction are the keys to success not only in business but in the school of life.

Can a company that has specialized in wholesale trade for nearly 70 years return to its production roots and thrive in the business of marketing?

From pulling all-nighters, to learning first-hand about fluctuating markets, to dealing with non-compliant customers while adjusting to different mentalities in different cultures and managing the logistics of global transaction, the challenges are never-ending. The work is hard. Failures are inevitable. And this is where each and every success has been hard-earned.

In 2009, we began our work with the US market in McAllen, TX. It was amazing to experience first-hand the innovation and ‘think big’ approach central to the American business viewpoint. This clear, ambitious attitude was infectious and soon worked its way into our company-wide culture.

Our headquarters office remains at the Hamburg Terminal Market. Here we concentrate the experience and knowledge of several generations. Here we are at home with neighbors we have known for decades — nearly all of them building on the same multi-generational family business foundation. It is an environment full of valuable information, and the pressures of the markets keeps us constantly active. Creativity, attention to detail and the ability to handle the daily challenges are under permanent development.

All products we have developed in the past we started to learn about here: on our wholesale booth in the terminal market. Like in a research center, we got inspired, and we have made our tests, failures and first steps forward toward in this simple trading business.

When it comes to real owning a farm-production, we are still struggling. On one hand, we need to feel, learn and know the details of production, packing and distributing the products. Wise people in the business always warn me: “Farming produce and trading cannot be managed by the same brain or heart.” They were right so far. But, as in all our moving-forward, we go on in the sense of Samuel Beckett and also Silicon Valley: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

In India, we have already reached the level of owning shares in a packinghouse and managing it. Here we are packing and exporting fresh table grapes to Europe. We are supporting the farmer and have close relationships. Of course, the dynamics of our business are very different from Silicon Valley. However, the principals remain the same. The family wholesale company with strong and tough people around makes me creative and strong and makes me feel like a pioneer.

We do not need to produce all our product by ourselves. But we need to know how it works to be recognized as an expert and as the right supplier for a specific product. We must get it in our heart and brain to be able to farm and produce. We need the knowledge of production to get the trust of the business partner and to make the right decision. My grandfather started it by learning about marketing produce, and I have to learn it by farming produce.

The wholesale business is a great place to be — family business values, building strength and living excitements — this is a great life. 

Andreas Schlinder is the CEO of Hamburg, Germany-based Don Limón, which was spun off 14 years ago from his family’s 69-year-old wholesale business, Pilz-Schindler. Don Limón now has operating offices in India, South Africa, Egypt and the U.S.